“Miracles are not contrary to nature. They’re just contrary to what we know about nature.”— Timothy Egan
For shits and giggles, I recently read a little cast-off devotional book—the cloying sort your grandma would love—called Small Miracles: Extraordinary Coincidences from Everyday Life (1997), by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal. As I explained in my last post, I do “believe” in miracles, but I’m always skeptical about them and I tend to assume they’re exceedingly rare. I also struggle to make sense of them: Why would the God of the Cosmos choose to intervene in our puny lives, and then only in such rare and unpredictable cases—rather than more broadly—in this world of so much evil and suffering?
It’s certainly a conundrum. But it’s one I can live with. “God moves in a mysterious way,” William Cowper wrote in his 1773 hymn, “Blind unbelief is sure to err, / And scan his work in vain; / God is his own interpreter…” I don’t need to know exactly what God is doing or why in order to trust in God’s boundless love for us, and I certainly don’t need to read into every minuscule blessing and curse of Fortune. That’s folly. The universe, after all, doesn’t revolve around me or anyone else in particular.
Still, extraordinarily good things do happen in our lives from time to time, often serendipitously, and it’s fun to wonder if God had a hand in it. Small Miracles is full of just such remarkable coincidences. Thus, as promised in my last post, here are eight of my favorite incredible true stories from the collection:
1.) On the search for old lovers…
I don’t know if it’s the hard-nosed reporter in me or the incurable romantic, but for some strange reason that I cannot fully explain, I constantly find myself poring over the “personals” in various newspapers week after week. I have been married for nineteen years and am certainly not looking for another spouse, yet I’m utterly riveted by these ads. The drama of everyday life is reflected in them, and they pay eloquent testimony to the hopes, dreams, and endurance of the human spirit.
Once in a while, I find an ad that I actually think is appropriate for a single friend of mine or for my widowed mother, and I refer them to the box number, urging that they respond. But most of the time, I just read these ads out of idle curiosity and an insatiable desire to know what lurks in romantic hearts.
One day I was scanning the personals column of a local newspaper, when I was stopped short by one particular ad. “Wow, that’s unusual!” I thought. “Could this be for real?” The ad that caught my attention read: “Henrietta – do you remember we met and courted at Camp Tamiment in 1938? I’ve never forgotten you. Please call me. Irving . . . “ and a phone number was listed, rather than the more common box I.D. “Is this some kind of joke?” I wondered aloud.
But all night long, I couldn’t get the ad out of my mind. “Those personal ads cost a lot of money,” I thought. “Why would someone waste so much money on a joke . . . and what’s the joke here, anyway?” Finally, in the morning I couldn’t take it anymore, and decided I just had to know the truth. Gathering my courage, I dialed the number in the ad.
As soon as the mature voice answered, I knew this was no joke, but the real thing. At that moment, I almost regretted my decision to make the call, hoping that it would not raise the elderly man’s expectations, even momentarily. “Uhh . . . this is not Henrietta,” I said quickly, “and I hope you don’t mind . . . but I was so intrigued by your ad, I just had to call and fin out . . . what’s the story?”
Gracious and courtly in a manner that is unfortunately out of style these days, Irving amiable accommodated my inquisitiveness, and recounted the following story:
“In 1938, Henrietta and I were both counselors at Camp Tamiment, an overnight camp in Pennsylvania, and we fell in love. We were sure we were right for each other, that we’d found ‘the one.’ However, Henrietta’s parents didn’t agree. She was seventeen at the time, and they felt she was much too young to get involved in a serious relationship. So in the fall, to get her away from me, they sent her to stay with an aunt in Europe, and she lived there for several years. There she met another man, whom she married. Heartbroken, I eventually married someone else. I never loved my wife in quite the same passionate way I loved Henrietta, but we did have a good marriage. She died three years ago, and I’ve been very lonely ever since. Lately, I’ve started to think about Henrietta a lot, and I’ve begun wondering if she’s still alive. And if she’s alive, whether she’s still married. And if she’s single now, could we reignite our old love? Well, you get the picture. Maybe I’m just a foolish man, but I was just hoping against hope that somehow Henrietta would see the ad. Or at least someone who knows her. I realize my chances are very slim, but I sort of thought at least I should give it a try.”
I was very moved by Irving’s recital, and found myself marveling at the essence of hope that resides in the human spirit, the trust and resilience that animate the soul. Irving’s faith in the possibilities of the future, at the age of seventy-one, was indeed touching. I asked Irving if he would mind if I wrote a story about his search for Henrietta, and he instantly agreed, but unfortunately the editor of my magazine didn’t like the idea at all. However, since I was fascinated to learn the outcome of Irving’s quest and had also formed an affection for him over the phone. I kept his number and called him from time to time to see how the story played out. Sadly, he never got the phone call he was waiting for.
In 1993, two years after I first made contact with Irving, I was riding the IRT line of the New York subway system and was again engrossed in reading the personals columns of a local paper, when I heard a soft chuckle beside me. “Looking for a new husband, my dear?” the woman sitting next to me inquired with a laugh, looking pointedly at my wedding band and then at the personals page spread clearly on my lap.
“Oh,” I blushed, a trifle embarrassed. “I just read them for fun. You know . . . out of curiosity. Don’t you ever have the yen?” I asked her.
“Not me,” she said, shaking her head adamantly, “Too much pathos in those pages. They would break my heart, those ads.” She turned to me with a warm smile, “But isn’t it always fascinating, the different perspectives different people have on the same things?”
My interest in her quickened. “What an intelligent woman!” I thought delightedly. “In a way, you’re right,” I agreed, “there is a lot of pathos in these pages.” And I began to tell her the story of Irving’s tender quest for Henrietta. She seemed mesmerized by the tale, and listened to my recital with rapt attention. “Well,” I concluded at the end of my account, “I wish I could give the story a happy ending and tell you Irving found Henrietta, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Either Henrietta’s already dead, or she lives in another city, or she just doesn’t read the personals.”
“It’s the third choice, my dear,” the woman said, patting my arm gently. “Trust me, I know.”
Startled, I looked at the lined face that held vestiges of regal beauty that had long since lost its bloom. “Do you still have his number?” she asked.
2.) On unexpected inheritances…
Tom Stonehill had been driving for several hours when he was overcome with the urge to go to the bathroom. It was late at night and all the gas stations he passed were closed. As time wore on, he became increasingly desperate. Finally, Tom exited the highway and drove into the first town along the road. There, he searched for a place that had facilities open to the public.
As he drove, his physical need took on heightened urgency and he started to pick up speed. Just as he began to accelerate, he heard someone on a loudspeaker instructing him to pull over to the side. It was the town sheriff. The sheriff got out of his car and approached Tom. “How fast do you think you can drive around here?” he asked in a formidable tone.
“Sir,” apologized Tom, “I never drive this fast, but you see, right now I am in dire need of a bathroom.”
The sheriff noted the sincerity in Tom’s voice and took pity on him. “I believe there may be something open if you continue on down this road,” he said, pointing straight ahead. “But you gotta watch the speed limit!” he added.
“I will,” replied Tom, relieved and glad to be moving on.
Moments later, Tom spotted a light in the distance. He was sure he was approaching a twenty-four hour grocery store. But the closer he came to his destination, the more it became clear that he was headed toward a funeral parlor. Tom felt hesitant about using their facilities, but his urge was too strong to ignore. He drove up to the entrance, parked his car, and walked in.
Once inside, he was greeted warmly, “Welcome. Would you please sign in?” said Mr. Gifford, the funeral director.
“Uh . . . I’m just here to use the bathroom,” Tom said apologetically. “May I?”
“Of course you may,” responded the director, “but please sign in first.” Tom couldn’t figure out why it was necessary to write his name down, but he did as he was told and hoped that would end the matter. Tom was about the ask the whereabouts of the men’s room when Mr. Gifford said, “Please write in your full address as well.”
“But why do you need my address?” asked Tom, perplexed, “I’m just here to use the bathroom for a minute.”
“Please, sir, fill in the information,” came the reply.
“What the heck?” Tom muttered to himself as he wrote. Then he followed as Mr. Gifford led him to the men’s room.
Before leaving the funeral parlor, Tom stopped for just a moment to pay his respects to the deceased. On his way out of the building, Tom saw the sheriff. “Thank you,” he nodded to Mr. Gifford and the sheriff, and with that, Tom was off and on his way back home.
Three week later, Tom received a phone call from a man unknown to him, who identified himself as an attorney. “I represent the funeral home where you stopped to use the washroom a few weeks ago,” the man said. “You need to be in my office this Thursday at 2:00 P.M.”
Tom was shaken. Alarmed, he asked, “Please tell me, did I do something wrong? Will I need a lawyer?”
“No, that won’t be necessary,” the attorney assured him. “Just be prompt,” he said. The attorney gave Tom his address and then hung up the phone.
For the next few days, Tom was on edge. “What could I possibly have done? Why would they call me in?” he wondered aloud. That Thursday, he drove to the attorney’s office with apprehension.
Tom found the office building as instructed. With bated breath and a pounding heart, he knocked on the front door. “Come in,” said the secretary. The attorney stepped out, formal introductions were made, and then Tom was directed to the office. Once inside, Tom was surprised to see both the sheriff and Mr. Gifford present.
“Please be seated,” began the attorney. “I have been authorized by the court to read the last will and testament of Mr. Stanley Murrow.” The attorney picked up the guest book that Tom had signed. He turned to the funeral director, pointed at Tom and asked, “Is this the man who signed the book?”
“Yes,” said the funeral director. Then the attorney looked at Tom and began, “I guess you didn’t know Mr. Murrow. He was a very wealthy man. He owned most of this town. However, he did not have any family and was universally disliked, practically shunned by the townspeople. Mr. Murrow has authorized me to be his executor.” The attorney picked up a document and continued. “This is the shortest will I have ever drawn up. It reads simply: ‘Everyone hated my guts, and no one ever got any money from me when I was alive. So any person who comes to my funeral is obviously someone who had some compassion for an old coot like me. I hereby bequeath my entire estate with all my holdings to be divided equally among those who actually attended my funeral.’”
The attorney then looked straight at Tom. “Yours was the only signature that appeared in the register book,” he said. “Therefore . . .”
3.) On absent fathers and lost sons…
In 1969, amidst the turbulence of the Vietnam War, a young Thai woman and a 20-year-old air force sergeant fell in love, lived together and gave birth to a baby boy. They named their son, Nueng.
At the end of the war, John Garcia, the father, and Pratorn Varanoot, the mother, faced each other, uncertain about the future. Transferring back to the States together seemed remote since the air force discouraged John from marrying a native, and Pratorn’s family discouraged her from moving away. John moved back to America, leaving behind his ex-lover and his baby boy. He tried to maintain contact with them, but as time wore on, it became increasingly difficult to do so. Pratorn had married another U.S. soldier who repeatedly returned John’s letters, unanswered. John wrote the Thai government in an attempt to locate them and retain some contact with his son. He never received a reply. The ties that bound this father and son were ultimately severed.
In 1996, a man drives down a highway in Pueblo, Colorado in his restored 1970 Nova. He happens to peer at the gas gauge that indicates the tank is half full. For some unexplainable reason, he decides to stop at a Total service station, a place he does not usually patronize. When it comes time to pay, once again, he does something that he ordinarily wouldn’t do: Despite having 30 dollars cash in his wallet, he pays by check. The young man behind the service counter looks down and notes the name on the check. With raised eyebrows he looks up at the man standing in front of him and asks, “Are you John Garcia?”
“Yes,” comes the reply.
“Have you ever been in the air force?” inquires the young man.
“Yes,” replies John, not thinking too much of the question.
“Have you ever lived in Thailand?” he continues.
“Yes,” John says, as he steps back, wondering what this is all about.
“Do you have a son there?”
With great puzzlement, once again a resounding “Yes.”
Now with halting breath and a racing heart, the cashier poses one more question, “What was his name?”
“Nueng,” comes the reply.
Amidst the sea of anonymous commuters on highway 50, the young man then looks into the eyes of the stranger standing before him and simply states, “I am your son.”
4.) On stumbling into good deeds…
He could easily afford the air fare, but David Brody preferred instead to drive from Montreal to New York City, which he did, on a monthly basis. Ever since an acquaintance had been killed in a small-plane crash, he had avoided air travel whenever possible. Business brought him to New York frequently, and he knew the Montreal-to-New York route by heart. He loved to drive, and often made the entire seven-hour trip in one lap, bypassing rest areas, diners, and pit stops. He drove at night, when the highway was empty and he could speed undeterred towards his destination. He had been driving effortlessly to New York for ten years now and had never once encountered any problem with the commute. He always napped on the even of his departure, guaranteeing that he would be wakeful and alert during the journey. He adhered faithfully to this practice and often joked to friends that when he drove to New York he was “on automatic.”
But one evening in May 1996, an hour into his journey from Montreal, something unusual happened to David Brody. He suddenly felt inexplicably, overwhelmingly exhausted. Every bone in his body ached with weariness, and his eyelids felt heavy with sleep. He opened the car windows, hoping that a blast of cold night air would revive him, and took a long swig of coffee from the Thermos bottle nestled on the seat next to him, but neither did the trick. He felt utterly sapped, completely enervated, totally drained. And he was puzzled, almost alarmed, by this uncommon state of affairs: In all the years he had been driving to New York, he had never once experienced difficulty. He was only an hour into his journey and, besides, he had just woken up from a four-hour nap. This overpowering weariness didn’t make any sense at all. Could he be ill?
Unable to drive any longer, David pulled off at the nearest exit, heading for an all-night gas station. He found himself in a small, obscure village in upstate New York which he had never heard of and had never noticed, even in passing. “Hi, how ya doing?” a jovial gas station attendant greeted him. “What can I do you for?”
“Any motels or hotels nearby?” David asked.
“You bet,” answered the attendant. “I have a list with their phone numbers. Can I get it for you?” he offered graciously.
“Thanks a lot,” David answered gratefully. But when he called all the lodgings on the list, he was disappointed to learn they were all solidly booked.
“Hmm, that’s real unusual!” exclaimed the helpful gas station attendant. “Tourist season doesn’t begin for another two weeks!”
“Well, how about places a little further away?” David asked anxiously.
“Here’s a list of motels within a fifty-mile radius,” said the attendant. “I’m sure you’ll find a room in one of these places.”
But to the attendant’s surprise and David’s consternation, these too were solidly booked. “Well, I’ll be darned,” muttered the attendant. “That’s strange!”
“Listen,” David said tensely, “I’m really desperate for a place to sleep. Is there maybe a sleep-away high school or college dormitory around here that might rent me a room for the night?”
“Nope, sorry,” said the attendant, “can’t say there is.”
“Well,” David said, feeling frantic for sleep and grasping at straws, “what about an old-age home?”
“Hey, you know,” said the attendant happily, “there IS one right down the road. And the owner, Patrick Riley, is a real nice guy. Let me give him a call for you. I’ll explain the situation and if he has an empty room, I’m sure he’ll rent it out to you for the night.” Sure enough, there was a spare bedroom in the home and it was made available to David for a modest fee.
In the morning, refreshed and renewed from a good night’s sleep, David paid Riley, thanked him profusely, and turned to leave. Almost out the door, he suddenly wheeled around and made a U-turn back to the reception desk. “I’ve just had a thought,” he told Riley. “Since I’m here already, maybe I could do a good deed. In addition to being a businessman, I also happen to be an ordained rabbi. Are there any Jewish residents in this home whose needs I might be able to minister to?”
“You know,” Riley answered with a bemused look, “it’s kinda strange you should ask. There was one Jewish patient here, but he died last night. Just about the same time you arrived here, as a matter of fact.”
“So what are you planning to do about a funeral and burial?” David inquired.
“Well, Samuel Weinstein was close to a hundred and outlived all his relatives. He had no next-of-kin listed on his documents, and he died without a nickel to his name. There’s no Jewish cemetery around here and I think the closest one is in Albany – a good hundred miles away. So we just figured on burying him in our local Christian cemetery, which has a pauper’s field reserved for these situations.”
“Listen,” David said urgently, “that’s very nice of you, but since he was Jewish, I’m sure he would have wanted to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I happen to have taken my station wagon with me this time – usually I drive to New York in my Corolla – and I have room in the back for a coffin. Maybe you could arrange to release the body to me, and I’ll take it to New York with me for a Jewish burial.”
Later that day David arrived at the offices of a prominent Jewish burial society in Brooklyn. “So terribly sorry,” murmured the director. “We could gladly do a free funeral for the man, but we don’t own any cemetery plats where we can bury him. Why don’t you try the Jewish burial society in Queens?” But in this other heavily Jewish borough of New York City, David encountered the same problem. Here, too, the directory shook his head mournfully and said, “You know, we just never anticipated a need like this before and we never made provisions for this kind of situation. I could try to raise funds from charitable organizations or individuals to buy a plot, but it might take days. I wish I could help you.” But as David turned to leave, the director shouted, “Hey, wait a minute! I just remembered that someone once told me that the Jewish burial society in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan has just such a fund. Why don’t you try them?”
In Washington Heights, David finally met with success. “Yes, indeed!” exclaimed an ancient-looking man whom he found in this cluttered, dusty office. “We do have special charitable fund that provides free funerals and burials for the destitute. About fifty years ago, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist in our community was concerned that the occasion might arise when Jews would die paupers or without next of kin. To address that situation, he endowed a special fund that bought burial plots for this express purpose. We have in fact several plots set aside in our cemetery that we use. I’ll take care of everything,” he assured David. “First things first, though – there’s something paperwork that has to be done,” he said, pulling out a sheaf of documents.
“What’s the deceased man’s name, please?” he inquired, pen poised in the air.
“Hmm,” said the director, “that name sounds familiar. Mind if I take a look at the body?” he asked, heading for the station wagon.
When the director returned to the office, David noticed a small tear trickling down his cheek. “My dear friend,” he announced to David, “not only will we be happy to give Samuel Weinstein a plot in our cemetery, we will give him the place of honor! God’s ways are indeed mysterious, my friend. The man in the back of your station wagon happens to be none other than the very same philanthropist who originally established the Free Burial Fund. He will be laid to rest in the cemetery plot he himself purchased … Your journey was long and arduous, Mr. Brody. But through your most commendable efforts, Samuel Weinstein has indeed been returned to his rightful place!”
5.) On long-lost engagement rings…
As a young bride in the summer of 1972, Faith Peterson came to the Adirondack cottage of her in-laws for a visit. Her doting husband, Kevin, took her rowing in an idyllic lake framed by pastoral woods. In the boat, sighing contentedly, Faith languidly swished her fingers through the cool water, enjoying the bracing feel of the wet cold against her warm hand.
Curling up in a corner of the boat and half-dozing, Faith continued running her had through the water until she suddenly became aware that her diamond engagement ring had slipped off her finger. “Oh my God!” she shrieked to her husband as she sat bolt upright in the boat. “My ring’s gone! It must have fallen into the water!”
“That’s impossible,” Kevin said with skepticism. “You probably left it in a drawer at the cottage.”
“No,” she insisted, “I never take it off, never. And besides . . . just as we were about the climb into the boat, a woman at the dock complimented me on it. So I know I had it on.”
“But how could it have fallen off your finger, Faith?”
“My hand was in the water, Kevin, and the ring was a little loose to begin with. It must have just slipped off . . .”
“Okay, don’t worry, I’ll find it,” Kevin reassured her, and dove into the shallow lake to begin searching the bottom.
All day long, he dove again and again into the crystalline waters of the placid lake, confident he would successfully ferret out the missing ring. After all, there was no powerful current coursing through the lake that could have carried the ring away, and there was little debris below the surface that could have trapped it. But each time that his head bobbed to the surface, the story was the same, “Not yet!” he would yell bravely to Faith as she sat forlornly in the boat, peering anxiously at him. “I’ll find it this time for sure!” he would smile valiantly, descending into the water for yet another foray.
Finally, at nightfall, Kevin called it quits. “I’m so sorry, honey,” he said to his disconsolate spouse, putting an arm around her shoulder. “I tried my best.”
“I know you did, Kevin.”
“And it’s not as if the ring isn’t insured. We’ll get you another one.”
“Kevin, you’re sweet and I know you mean well, but another ring just won’t be the same. This is the diamond you gave me when you proposed, when we pledged our eternal love. I treasured it as a symbol, for its meaning and sentimental value. Any other diamond will just be an expensive rock. No, it’s the original ring I want,” Faith said stubbornly. “If I can’t have the one I lost, then I don’t want another. Let’s use the insurance money for something practical, like furniture.”
“Okay, honey,” Kevin shrugged, too drained from the day’s rigors to argue. So Faith never got a substitute – not even when they were wealth and could easily afford one.
In 1992, when Faith and Kevin were a middle-aged couple with teenage children of their own, they took their family to the same Adirondack cottage where they had vacationed as newlyweds. Kevin had inherited it from his parents when they had died, but had since that first visit never returned to the cottage, preferring to rent it out instead. For years, they had sent their children to overnight camp, but this summer the kids had rebelled. “C’mon, Dad,” they argued, “we’re too old for camp. Let’s go to the Adirondacks for the summer and use Gramps’s cottage.”
When they arrived at the cottage, Kevin was excited. “Let me take you out to the lake,” he said to his kids as his wife was unpacking. “You don’t mind, do you, hon?”
“No, go ahead, enjoy yourselves! It’s actually much easier for me to finish when you’re all out of the way,” Faith said, laughing.
“Hey, Dad, can I take my fishing rod along?” asked the youngest.
“Sure, I hear the fish are really biting today.”
When they returned home a few hours later, Kevin and the kids proudly held aloft their prize catch of the day: a huge trout that weighed in at seven pounds.
“Guess what’s for dinner?” Kevin winked at Faith, as she directed the requisite “oohs” and “aahs” at her youngest, who was glowing with unmasked pride. “I never caught such a big one before,” he said.
“It sure is a great catch,” Faith agreed, as she placed the trout on a cutting board and slit it open with a knife.
“It sure is a great catch!” she repeated, staring in shock at the entrails of the fish. With a sweeping motion of her hand, she beckoned her husband to her side.
Inside the belly of the trout was Faith’s diamond ring.
6.) On love kindled in the darkest of places…
On a cold day in 1942, inside a Nazi concentration camp, a lone young boy looks beyond the barbed wire and sees a young girl pass by. She too, is moved by his presence. In an effort to give expression to her feelings, she throws a red apple over the fence – a sign of life, hope, and love. The young boy bends over, picks up the apple. A ray of light has pierced his darkness.
The following day, thinking he is crazy for even entertaining the notion of seeing this young girl again, he looks out beyond the fence, hoping. On the other side of the barbed wire, the young girl yearns to see again this tragic figure who moves her so. She comes prepared with apple in hand. Despite another day of wintry blizzards and chilling air, two hearts are warmed once again as the apple passes over the barbed wire. The scene is repeated for several days. The two young spirits on opposite sides of the fence look forward to seeing each other, if only for a moment and if only to exchange a few words. The interaction is always accompanied by an exchange of inexplicably heartening feelings.
At the last of these momentary meetings, the young boy greets his sweet friend with a frown and says, “Tomorrow, don’t bring me an apple, I will not be here. They are sending me to another camp.” The young boy walks away, too heartbroken to look back.
From that day forward, the calming image of the sweet girl would appear to him in moments of anguish. Her eyes, her words, her thoughtfulness, her red apple, all were a recurring vision that would break his nighttime sweats. His family died in the war. The life he had known had all but vanished, but this one memory remained alive and gave him hope.
In 1957 in the United States, two adults, both immigrants, are set up on a blind date. “And where were you during the war?” inquires the woman.
“I was in a concentration camp in Germany,” the man replies.
“I remember I used to throw apples over the fence to a boy who was in a concentration camp,” she recalls.
With a feeling of shock, the man speaks. “And did that boy say to you one day, ‘Don’t bring an apple anymore because I am being sent to another camp’?”
“Why, yes,” she responds, “but how could you possibly know that?”
He looks into her eyes and says, “I was that young boy.”
There is a brief silence, and then he continues, “I was separated from you then, and I don’t ever want to be without you again. Will you marry me?” They embrace one another as she says, “Yes.”
On Valentine’s Day 1996, on a national telecast of the Oprah Winfrey show, this same man affirmed his enduring love to his wife of forty years. “You fed me in the concentration camp,” he said, “you fed me throughout all these years; now, I remain hungry if only for your love.”
7.) On returning life-saving favors…
Allen Falby, an El Paso Country highway patrolman, and Alfred Smith, a businessman, met for the first time on a hot June night when Falby crashed his motorcycle.
He was racing down the road to overtake a speeding truck when the vehicle slowed down to make a turn. Unaware that the truck was slowing, Falby slammed full throttle into its tailgate. The crack-up demolished the cycle and nearly amputated one of Falby’s legs. As he lay in agony on the pavement, a pool of blood began to form beneath his shattered limb. He had ruptured an artery in his leg and was bleeding to death.
It was then that fate brought Falby and Smith together.
Smith had been driving home along the road when he saw the accident. Shaken but alert, he was out of his car and bending over the badly injured man almost before the sound of the impact died on the night air.
Smith wasn’t a doctor but could see what had to be done for the dying patrolman. Whipping off his tie, Smith quickly bound Falby’s leg in a crude tourniquet. It worked. The flow of blood slackened to a trickle and then stopped entirely. When the ambulance arrived a few minutes later, Smith learned for the first time that he had saved Falby’s life.
Five years later, around Christmas, Falby was on highway night patrol when he received a radio call from headquarters to investigate an accident along U.S. 80. A car had smashed into a tree. A man was in serious condition, and an ambulance was on the way.
Falby reached the wreck well before the ambulance. Pushing his way past a group of frightened bystanders, he found the injured man slumped unconscious across the torn car seat.
The man’s right pants leg was saturated and sticky with blood. He had severed a major artery and was bleeding to death. Well trained in first aid, Falby quickly applied a tourniquet above the ruptured artery. When the bleeding stopped, he pulled the man from the car and made him more comfortable on the ground.
That’s when Falby recognized the victim. He was Alfred Smith, the man who had saved his own life five years before.
Fate had brought the two men together again – and both meetings had been for the same purpose: for one man to save the life of the other in exactly the same way.
“Well,” Falby told Doug Storer of the National Tattler, who first reported the story, “you might say, it all goes to prove that one good tourniquet deserves another!”
8.) On messages left by estranged fathers…
He was born to a life of privilege and – as the times mandated – rebelled fiercely when he was nineteen. Donning the faded, torn denim uniform of his generation, Joey Riklis dropped out of college, quit his part-time job, and announced to his widowed father that he was taking off for India in search of “enlightenment.” Sensitive and psychologically astute, his father, Adam Riklis, withstood this blow with equanimity and grace, heeding the advice of friends who counseled patience, tolerance, and love. Joey was acting “normal for his age,” they explained confidently, and the storm would soon blow over, they were sure. So Adam told his son that he understood that he was testing his wings and carving out his own unique identity, and he assured him that he accepted the convulsions erupting in his life with sympathy and understanding. But when Joey revealed one day that he had broken with his religion, his father snapped.
Adam Riklis was a Holocaust survivor. His entire family had been murdered by the Nazis, and he alone had withstood the barbaric hardships of three concentration camps. Upon learning that he was the sole survivor of his family, he had silently pledged that the religion his relatives had died for would not die with him. Although many survivors had come away with the opposite attitude, abandoning the religion of their youth in anger and pain, Adam’s perspective had been quite different. To divorce himself from the religion of his murdered relatives would be no less than a betrayal of their lives . . . and deaths.
In Cleveland, Adam had clung tightly to his Jewish traditions and religious rituals, carefully incorporating them into his family’s day-to-day existence. He sent his children to Hebrew day school, took them to synagogue regularly, and saw to it that they adhered strictly to religious law. He was proud that he had raised religious children who would carry on the family’s heritage. But now his own son was announcing that he was scorning this very legacy, making a mockery of his family’s losses. Adam could countenance anything but this.
“Get out of here!” he screamed at Joey. “Get out of my home and never come back! You are not my son. I disown you from my heart, from my soul, from my life. I never want to see you again!”
“Well, that’s just fine with me,” Joey shouted back, “because I never want to see you again either!”
In India, Joey traveled from guru to guru, seeking wisdom, spiritually – concrete answers to life’s elusive mysteries. During his travels, he hooked up with Sarah, his female counterpart in many ways. She too had dropped out of a religious Jewish home and was looking for another spiritual path. They were certain they were “soulmates.” They had been together for six years when Joey accidentally encountered an old classmate from Cleveland on a street corner in Bombay.
Joey and Sammy embraced happily. “This is unbelievable!” they told each other. They were avidly trading the stories of their respective adventures when Sammy’s eyes clouded and he said somberly, “Hey, Joey, I was really sorry to hear about your dad.”
“My dad?” Joey repeated dumbly. “What do you mean?”
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry. They you don’t know, obviously.”
“Know what?” Joey asked, now rigid with dread.
“Oh, Joey, your father died a couple months ago. No one wrote you?”
“No one knew where I was,” Joey replied slowly, dumbstruck by the news. “What did he die of?”
“A heart attack.”
“Not a heart attack,” Joey said, his eyes welling with tears. “More like a broken heart, I’m sure. And I’m the cause. I killed him. I killed my own father.”
“Joey, don’t be ridiculous,” Sarah murmured, touching his shoulder in compassion. “You had nothing to do with your father’s death!”
“Sarah, you’re wrong,” Joey answered. “I had everything to do with my father’s death!”
For several days afterward, Joey lived in a stupor, dazed with grief and remorse. He could not shake his overwhelming certainty that the pain he had inflicted on his father had taken his life. In the back of his mind, he had always hoped for a reconciliation. Somehow he had been sure that a loving reunion would one day take place. Now he would never be able to ask his father’s forgiveness, or return to the warm embrace of his love. And he would never have the closure, the resolution, that he so desperately needed.
“Sarah,” he shook his head mournfully a few days after learning of his father’s death. “I can’t go on like this anymore. India tastes like ashes to me now. I know you’ll think I’m strange but I have to go . . . to Israel.”
“Israel!” Sarah said in surprise, wrinkling her nose in distaste as only an entrenched religious rebel could. “Why do you want to go to Israel?”
“I just feel a pull, Sarah. I can’t explain it, but I have to go.”
“Okay, okay, so we’ll go,” she agreed unhappily.
When the plane landed, Joey turned to Sarah and said, “I want to go pray.”
“Are you turning weird on me, Joey?” she asked in mock concern.
“Okay, okay,” she relented, “so you want to pray, fine. You want to go to a synagogue?”
“No, Sarah, I want to go to the Wall. It’s the only remnant left of the First and Second Temples – considered the holiest site in Jerusalem. People believe that God’s presence is stronger there than in any other place in Israel. It’s where people from all over the world go to pray, to petition God, to ask for miracles. What I want to do is pray for my father’s forgiveness.”
“Okay,” Sarah said, “let’s go. But I have to tell you I don’t like the direction you seem to be taking.”
“Sarah!” Joey cried out in anguish. “Why don’t you understand?”
“I understand only too well, Joey. I understand that you’re not the same Joey I knew all these years. You used to laugh at all this crap together with me. And now you want to go pray at a wall.”
“Look, Sarah, I’m in pain. I loved my father. He’s dead. I feel I killed him. Why are you making this so hard for me?”
They quarreled for an hour, and finally decided to split up. “Sarah, I don’t know why this is happening,” Joey said sadly. “I thought you were my soulmate.”
“I am,” she said softly, planting a tender and regretful kiss on his cheek. “But our souls simply aren’t in alignment anymore. Goodbye, Joey.”
Approaching the Wall on foot, Joey looked from a distance at the clusters of people thronging the plaza. Ethiopians in African headdress, Yemenites in white traditional robes, Americans in T-shirts and little yarmulkes. All coming to press their lips against the cool stones, cry warm tears, and fervently beseech God with their personal petitions.
Joey approached a security guard, one of dozens tensely scanning the crowds. “Excuse me,” he said. “Can I get a prayer book anywhere around here?”
Silently, the guard pointed in the direction of a bearded rabbi, who was dispensing religious paraphernalia – yarmulkes, prayer books, women’s scarves – to the uninitiated.
Donning a borrowed yarmulke and clutching a prayer book, Joey made his way to a section of the Wall. Watching the others and simulating their movements, he rested his head against the smooth stone of the Wall, tried to encircle it with his arm to create an aura of privacy, and began to silently pray. He thought the words would seem foreign after all these years and that he would chant them haltingly, but instead they flowed forth from him in a familiar, comforting stream. He closed his eyes and recalled his father’s intonation of these same words, as he was transported back in memory to different realms, the world of his youth. “Oh, Dad,” he sobbed. “How I wish I could ask your forgiveness! How I wish I could tell you how much I loved you! How much I regret all the pain I caused you! I didn’t mean to hurt you, Dad. I was just trying to find my own way. You meant everything to me, Dad. I wish I could tell you that.”
When Joey finished praying, he turned around, at a loss at what to do next. Then he observed people around him scribbling notes and inserting them into the crevices of the Wall. Curious as to what this behavior meant, he approached a young man, and asked, “Excuse me, why are so many people putting little pieces of paper into the cracks of the Wall?”
“Oh, these are their petitions,” the youth answered, “their prayers. It is believed that the stones are so holy that requests placed inside of them will be especially blessed.”
“Can I do that, too?” Joey asked, intrigued.
“Sure. But be warned, it isn’t easy to find an empty crevice anymore!” the young man laughed. “Jews have been coming here for centuries to ply God with their prayers!”
Joey wrote: “Dear Father, I beg you to forgive me for the pain I caused you. I loved you very much and I will never forget you. And please know that nothing that you taught me was in vain. I will not betray your family’s deaths. I promise.”
When he had finished writing the note, Joey searched for an empty crevice. The young man had not exaggerated. All of the Wall’s cracks were filled, crammed, overflowing with petitioners’ notes, and it took him close to an hour to find an empty space. But it turned out not to be empty, after all. When he slid his own small note into the crack, he accidentally dislodged another that had already been resting there, and it fell to the ground. “Oh, no, I’ve pushed out someone’s note,” Joey thought, a little panic-stricken, wondering what he should do with it. He stooped down to retrieve it, and holding the rolled-up paper in his palm, began searching for another space in which to insert it. But suddenly overcome by a tremendous curiosity to read the words of the unknown petitioner, Joey did something uncharacteristically unscrupulous: He rolled open the note to examine its contents. And this is what he read:
“My Dear Son Joey, If you should ever happen to come to Israel and somehow miraculously find this note, this is what I want you to know: I always loved you, even when you hurt me, and I will never stop loving you. You are, and always will be, my beloved son. And Joey, please know that I forgive you for everything, and only hope that you in turn will forgive a foolish old man.” The note was signed “Adam Riklis, Cleveland, Ohio.”
“Sir, are you all right. Sir . . . Sir . . . ?” The disembodied voice cam from a distance, shattering Joey’s reverie. He didn’t know how long he had been standing there, numb, paralyzed with shock, clutching his father’s note in his trembling hand, tears flowing in rivulets down his face. Stunned, he turned to face the young man who had instructed him on the writing of the petition minutes ago. “Listen,” said the young man warmly, draping a sympathetic arm around Joey’s shoulder, “you don’t have to tell me. It will be Sabbath soon, it’s almost sundown. Would you like to come spend it with me?”
Three years later, Joey had returned to his religion as was a full-time rabbinical student. “I think it’s time for you to marry,” the head rabbi said to him one day. “My wife likes to play matchmaker and she says she has the perfect girl for you. I’ve told her about you, and she says she’s positive she has found your soulmate. It’s someone like yourself – a returnee to Judaism – who studies at my wife’s women’s school. Would you like to meet her? Come to my house tonight for dinner, and she’ll be there.”
That evening, Joey entered the rabbi’s house and was escorted to the living room. There, sitting on the couch, was none other than his old love, Sarah. They stared across the room at each other in shock and awe, and Sarah blinked back tears. “How . . . how did this happen, Sarah?” Joey asked in stunned surprise.
“Well, after we split up,” Sarah said, “I began to wander around Israel. ‘I’m here already, I might as well see the country before I head back to India,’ I told myself. So I started trekking around, and despite myself began to fall in love with the country, the people, and . . . the religion. One day, someone told me about a great women’s school, so here I am!”
“Sarah, I thought about you so often all these years . . .”
“Well, I guess our souls are in alignment now,” she said softly, as she turned to him with a welcoming smile.
That last one was probably my favorite, even though it’s the longest. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed them! I know they were a bit sugary and fairy-taley in places. But truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Cheers, folks.